Our team of researchers from LearningWorks for Kids and The University of Rhode Island Education Department conducted an evaluation of our school-based programming. This program, Playing Smarter, uses popular, Internet-based, casual games as an important component for training executive functions in children.
We did this study to determine the effectiveness of our Playing Smarter in the classroom program that uses popular video games as tools for teaching, practicing, and generalizing thinking skills. This research examined the effectiveness of popular online games and other learning activities to improve the skills of Planning, Focus, and Flexibility.
The Playing Smarter in the Classroom study was designed as a program evaluation where we were most interested in determining the most effective games and activities for improving executive skills. As a result, we conducted two consecutive three-week programs where modifications were made (in between sessions) to the original program.
This study had nine participants ranging in age from 8 to 12 who had been evaluated at a mental health center for Learning Disabilities, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or Executive Functioning Disorder. Prior to the study, all participants were administered pretests to gauge their understanding of the executive-functioning skills of Planning, Focus, and Flexibility. Participants were also administered self-report measures of their executive skills, and their parents were given rating forms, including the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function (BRIEF) and the Executive Skills Questionnaire (ESQ).
We found in the first session is that students were able to identify their use of thinking skills across settings and describe how they might improve them in the real world. However, they were not easily engaged in goal setting and unfocused on the classroom “connection activities” designed to teach them how to use these skills in meaningful, real-world way. Instead, they were overly focused on game play and less on generalizing these skills in a helpful fashion.
The second session was far more successful not only in engaging the children in goal setting, but also in getting them to recognize the importance of using game-based skills in the real world. A series of graduated activities was used rather than a single activity that helped the children better connect the game-based skills to real-world activities.
The study also indicated the importance of training the children in the games. Teachers and students who were adept at the games were used to train other students in basic game mechanics. Then, rather than giving the children a set amount of time to play the games, they were given goals within the games based upon their varying skills at mastering the games. This resulted in a sense of success on the part of the students and a capacity to identify how their thinking skills helped them in their game play.
The results of the study also indicated that the use of online video games while playing smarter in the classroom can be used to teach thinking skills. Particularly in the second session, the children were highly engaged, interested in setting goals for themselves within game play, and scored higher on a series of content and neuropsychologically-based post-tests demonstrating improvement in their thinking skills.